The clock strikes 9 as my husband and I drive up to Plains High School in Plains, Ga., part of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site. We have an hour before Sunday school begins at Maranatha Baptist Church, and we think that we have plenty of time to explore the museum and visitor center at the school.
“Y’all here for Sunday school?” the National Park Service ranger asks as we say hello. “If you are, you’d better get on to the church. You’ve got to get through Secret Service and security, and the sanctuary fills up fast, too.”
That’s because the teacher for the class is Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, and when we arrive at the church just five minutes later — it’s practically a stone’s throw from the school — the parking lot is already crammed with cars. The license plates are from a smattering of states, with New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, South Carolina and even Alaska among them.
As the congregation of members and visitors, including the mayors of both Plains and nearby Americus, waits for Carter, Jan Williams entertains us with tidbits of information about the former president and his family. Williams, a lively lady who’s a member of Maranatha, is a close friend of the Carters and a retired teacher who taught First Daughter Amy in the fourth grade in the Sumter County school system.
She tells us that Carter is the first president to have been born in a hospital, back on Oct. 1, 1924. He’s the only POTUS ever to have lived in public housing and, as far as anyone knows, the first to teach and still be teaching a Sunday school class.
Williams adds that Carter joined Maranatha in 1981, moving his membership letter from Plains Baptist Church, where he’d been baptized and ordained as a deacon and had also taught Sunday School since he was 18 years old.
As the small church fills to about three-quarters full, with maybe about 75 of us (“The most we had in one day was 878,” Williams says), we’re instructed not to stand up, applaud or, heaven forbid, text anyone, with warnings of a sound scolding for breaking any rules, including making “110 percent sure” that our cellphone will not ring.
Rosalynn — and that’s Rose-a-lynn, not Roz-a-lynn — quietly comes into the sanctuary first, followed shortly afterward by her husband, the former president. Just before he begins the lesson, he moves from one end of the front row to the other, just inches from the congregation, flashing a charismatic million-watt smile and talking to us as though we’re old friends.
“I want to know to whom I’m speaking this morning,” he says before asking where we’re all from. As people shout out the same states represented on the car tags in the parking lot, he patiently waits until everyone answers before moving on to the lesson from the first book of Samuel in the Old Testament.
A Southern Baptist myself, I’ve listened to plenty of preachers in my lifetime, so I have to add this: Had Carter not been president and a peanut farmer, he would have made a fine preacher. Not the hellfire, brimstone and damnation type that’s so prevalent in the South, but one who knows the Bible and can deliver a sincere message as well as any other pastor around.
Nearly 37 years after he took office as president in 1977, tourists still flock to tiny Plains, about three hours south of Atlanta, to visit the home town of Jimmah Cahter and to attend his Sunday school class.
At the Georgia Visitor Information Center of Plains, we speak to a young woman named Amy. I’m listening to her honey-thick accent when I realize that she sounds a lot like, well, I do.
“We get a lot of people traveling to and from Florida in the spring and fall,” she says. “Some stop by and visit every year, and we know them well and treat them just like family.”
Back in downtown Plains — and I say that loosely, because it’s pretty much just a block of souvenir and antiques shops, including Plains Historic Inn and Antiques, the town’s only inn, which Williams runs and the Carters helped renovate — Roy and I walk around for a few minutes and sample fried peanuts and peanut butter ice cream before visiting the Plains Depot. Built in 1888, the depot served as Carter’s campaign headquarters back in the mid-1970s, when everyone was scratching their heads and asking, “Jimmy who?”
Just a few steps away, across Highway 280, is Billy Carter’s Service Station. Once Jimmy Who became president, no one had to ask, “Billy who?” The rambunctious Billy, First Brother and good ol’ boy — as a fellow Georgian, I say that with respect — ran the station from 1972 until 1981. He then moved away but returned to his home town before passing away a few years later.
Driving out of Plains on Highway 280, we pass fields of rich red clay that will be planted in either cotton or peanuts, and then turn off on a county-maintained road to visit Lebanon Cemetery, where First Brother Billy, First Sister Gloria, and Miss Lillian and Earl Carter, the former president’s parents, are buried. It’s peaceful here on this hill among the pines and, I thought, a good place to spend eternity.
Just beyond the cemetery is the Carter boyhood farm. It’s after church now, and our fellow tourists are starting to venture in. Roy and I walk around, admiring how much the farm reminds us both of the ones we grew up on, with its barns, pecan trees and chicken coops. But the same winter storm that had paralyzed Atlanta just a few days earlier had brought subfreezing temperatures to Plains, too, and the pipes in the house had frozen and burst. It was closed for repairs.
Back to town we soon went, with Plains High School our last stop. Roy and I ambled through the museum and visitor center, taking our time to see Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize, the replica of his presidential desk, and hundreds, if not thousands, of photos and exhibits from the extraordinary lifetime of an extraordinary man.
Plains is the Carters’ home. It’s where they were born, dated and married, worship, now live, and more than likely will one day pass away. Snapshots of their lives are everywhere, he the perfect Southern gentleman and she the charming lady who’s considered the original steel magnolia.
Plains is a sweet, simple, harmonious community that Carter described in his book “An Hour Before Daylight” as “a circle with a half-mile radius centered on the depot.” It’s a good description.
The tourists still come to where there’s no stoplight, just a blinking traffic light. Maybe they don’t visit in the droves they once did, but in smaller waves of those who appreciate the man, the town, and this place he calls home.
Anderson is a travel and nature writer in Hazlehurst, Ga. She can be reached at